Not long after I began writing for Computer Graphics World, I was introduced to stereolithography, a technique for making parts and objects through an addi-tive process, whereby an item is constructed by successively printing layers of a material atop one another until the object is built. This process uses CAD model files, which are read by the stereolithography machine; the machine then outputs the object in three-dimensional form. Over the years, the name “stereolithography” started to be interchanged with “rapid prototyping” and even “CNC machining.” The latter, however, uses a subtractive process, whereby a machine reads a digital object file and then removes lay-ers from a large chunk of material until the object is created. Nev-ertheless, the premise was the same: Users could create something real from a digital model.
The printers from 20 years ago were large, expensive, and lim-ited in what they could produce. As a result, the technology was mainly the domain of large engineering shops, including car man-ufacturers, as a way to quickly design parts. While still a standard tool in many larger manufacturing facilities, these printers have made the leap into the mainstream and semi-mainstream markets. There are a number of reasons for this, particularly considering the lower price and ease of use. Another big attraction: The machines can output a model using various materials and a variety of colors. This is a far cry from the earlier days when the out-put models were white and made from a sandy resin material. Today, some printers even use biomaterials.
Current machines are also smaller, some fit right on a desktop. Oh, and by the way, in the last few years the fancy words for the technology (stereolithography and rapid prototyping) have evolved as well. Now the machines are simply called “3D printers.” In 2011, the MakerBot—an inexpensive, 3D printer ideal for hobbyists—became a big hit for the home market (see “From Digital to Real and Back Again,” June/July 2011). And at SIGGRAPH last year, 3D printers seemed to be every-where, validating the revival of this technology—especially for mainstream artists and craftspeople.
So it should be no surprise that with all this interest, there is a shake-up occurring in the 3D printing world as players align and realign themselves. 3D Systems, one of the original players, is acquiring company after company, looking beyond today and into tomorrow. Another strong contender in this space is Stratasys. Read about what these companies have been up to—and how the technology is growing and evolving in Kathleen Maher’s business trends story Here.
On different note, we see another revival of sorts—this one of all things from Middle-earth, as Barbara Robertson explores this imaginary universe and the new technology required by the team at Weta to bring the digital to reality on the screen. Over the years, Weta has created movie magic, building on new techniques from one film to deliver something even better for the next one. This is certainly true of the studio’s work in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The CG characters have raised the digital bar, including a younger version of Gollum, once again performed by Andy Serkis. And the environments are stunning. No doubt the Weta team will continue this trend as we await Part 2 of the film at the end of this year.